This is no. 52 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Lynda Barry has this thing about images; she says they’re alive. The writer and comics artist’s philosophy on making art is difficult to explain because it’s so true—but I’ll try. Find an image from your memory that’s alive and then draw or write it, she says, whichever is more your thing. Anything can be an image. Your first phone number when you say it out loud, a flash of an old notebook with a snowman in it, a brick wall you saw yesterday.
Almost all of my projects have started from images. For my nonfiction book, The Third Rainbow Girl, it was the image of three women hitchhikers: two on one side of the road, the third on the other side and heading in the opposite direction. For my short story “Fat Swim,” it was the image of a little fat girl looking through a chain-link fence to watch a group of fat women in bathing suits happily playing together in a pool. I cannot remember if Lynda Barry says this or if I say this, but the key to turning an image into a narrative is to ask: Into what life does this image come? For whom is this image urgent?
It doesn’t sound like something Lynda Barry would say. It sounds too pragmatic, and too focused on making an image into something, something you can package and sell, and LB isn’t usually that into somethings. Her books on the craft of writing and drawing, What It Is, Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, and Making Comics, are much more focused on the nothings than the somethings: the places where memory crashes up onto the sand of the present and leaves a shadow impression once it’s retreated, the spaces in childhood for abject despair that just never get filled in, the ways that ghosts of childhood play can morph and change and haunt us, telling us our ideas and feelings are not even worth recording. Of all these books, What It Is has the most to say about images and the craft of writing. I know exactly where this book is in my house at all times. I can see it now, downstairs on the biggest bottom bookshelf nestled up against the fancy Aperture catalogue, with its big smooth cover and its slick pages, once textured collages LB made with her own hands but now the regular thickness of regular paper.
For a while I kept a notebook of three images from my day and made my writing students do the same. They could be images from the present or from the past: a red sneaker against a silver background on Philly’s El train, the look on my old cat’s face when he stuck his nose in my ear to wake me up, or whatever else came up that day. When I was empty sitting down to write at my desk, I could flip through this image catalogue and see what caught, what still felt alive. I should probably start doing that again.
Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts.Thumbnail: Guillaume Paumier